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Diamondbacks roster projection 1.0: Happy New Year edition

Jesse Friedman Avatar
January 5, 2023

With Evan Longoria and Zach Davies reportedly in the fold on one-year deals, the Diamondbacks’ offseason to-do list is nearing completion and the 2023 roster is taking shape.

It is hard to say if any individual move to date has meaningfully moved the ball forward for 2023, but the team as a whole looks better on paper. In addition to Longoria and Davies, the Diamondbacks signed a pair of free-agent relievers in Scott McGough and Miguel Castro. They also dealt Cooper Hummel to the Seattle Mariners for an intriguing right-handed bat in Kyle Lewis. The biggest headliner of the offseason to date was trading outfielder Daulton Varsho to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and highly-touted catcher Gabriel Moreno.

Although another move is possible — most likely signing a free-agent reliever — the position player corps looks like a finished product. In total, the D-backs have added five right-handed hitters to the 40-man roster, bringing much-needed balance to what was previously a very lefty-dominated group.

At this point, the team’s offseason maneuvers are close enough to the finish line that the 2023 Opening Day roster is coming into view. Here is a snapshot of what it might look like.

Newly re-signed Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zach Davies pitches at Coors Field. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Starting pitchers (5)

Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Zach Davies, Madison Bumgarner, Drey Jameson

Other candidates: Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry, Brandon Pfaadt, Corbin Martin

After finishing in the top five in Cy Young voting, all signs point to Zac Gallen getting the ball on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium on March 31. Merrill Kelly is also a shoo-in for a rotation spot after tallying a career-high 177 strikeouts with a 3.37 ERA over 200.1 innings last year. Zach Davies was not as good as either, but should still be viewed as a lock to make the rotation. After that trio, the starting pitcher situation becomes far less clear.

The future of 14-year veteran Madison Bumgarner is particularly murky after the addition of Davies. The lefty is coming off the worst full season of his career, finishing 2022 with a 4.88 ERA,1.44 WHIP and a career-low 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. When asked on final media day if Bumgarner’s 2023 rotation spot was guaranteed, general manager Mike Hazen was noncommittal.

“We have increased the level of competition that exists within the organization in these spots,” he said. “Incumbency probably matters when you’re going into spring training for sure, especially with the younger guys that we have. But if the expectation next year is going to be moving the ball forward from where we are right now, we are going to be making decisions that we need to make as we need to make them.”

How Bumgarner looks in the Cactus League will go a long way toward determining his fate. Given that the D-backs still owe Bumgarner $37 million over the next two seasons and Hazen’s view that “incumbency probably matters,” it is hard to envision a scenario in which Bumgarner doesn’t at least crack the Opening Day rotation. For our purposes, we’ll say he does.

After Bumgarner comes Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson, both of whom pitched extremely well in a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2022. In 18.1 innings, Nelson pitched to a 1.47 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 16 strikeouts and six walks. In 24.1 innings, Jameson logged a 1.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 24 strikeouts and seven walks.

Those numbers are probably loud enough to afford each of them an edge in the starting rotation competition. Picking between them is difficult, but we’ll give the edge to Jameson for now, simply because his pitch arsenal was more indicative of a starting pitcher than Nelson’s during their time in the big leagues last year. That’s not to say Nelson doesn’t have a variety of weapons, but it’s hard to ignore that 70 percent of his pitches were four-seamers during his first stint in the big leagues. That number will have to decrease to hold down a starting rotation spot long-term.

After Nelson and Jameson, the next man up figures to be Tommy Henry. He also made his big league debut last year, albeit with much less success. In 47 innings, the 25-year-old logged a 5.36 ERA and 1.44 WHIP with 36 strikeouts and 21 walks. Still, Henry pitched markedly better than those numbers suggest in his first few starts, and it seems like a near certainty he’ll start in the big leagues at some point in 2023.

The biggest wild card for the Opening Day rotation is Brandon Pfaadt, who worked his way up to Triple-A Reno last year and led all of Minor League Baseball in strikeouts. With a strong spring, it is not out of the question that Pfaadt could start the year in the rotation.

On one hand, the D-backs’ rotation options are plentiful and intriguing. On the other, there’s still quite a bit of risk here, with Gallen and Kelly being the only clearly above-average starters and the rest of the group having a wide range of outcomes. Davies helps mitigate that risk, but his peripherals suggest his 4.09 ERA from 2022 may be difficult to repeat.

Miami Marlins pitcher Cole Sulser pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at loanDepot Park. (Jim Rassol/USA TODAY Sports)

Relievers (8)

Mark Melancon, Miguel Castro, Scott McGough, Joe Mantiply, Kevin Ginkel, Kyle Nelson, Cole Sulser, one free-agent reliever

Other candidates: Ryne Nelson, Justin Martinez, Carlos Vargas, Tyler Holton, Edwin Uceta, Luis Frías, J.B. Bukauskas

The first four here are all but certain to make the Opening Day roster, and both Kevin Ginkel and Kyle Nelson would seem to have an inside track after strong showings last year. Ginkel, in particular, impressed toward the end of the season with a 1.23 ERA in September and October. Opposing hitters slashed just .173/.241/.212 against him in that span.

Beyond those six, the bullpen picture is unclear for the D-backs. For the sake of this exercise, we will assume that Hazen brings in one more reliever via free agency, a possibility he has hinted at in the past. That would bring the total number of relievers on the roster to seven. The D-backs would still need one more.

That last spot would come down to a spring training competition. In the past, the Diamondbacks have generally favored experienced relievers over young relievers on Opening Day rosters, which is why I’m giving 32-year-old Cole Sulser the nod here. With a strong spring, though, any of the other candidates listed above are feasible options.

Claimed off waivers from the Miami Marlins, Sulser struggled in 2022 with Miami to the tune of a 5.29 ERA and 1.62 WHIP but was one of baseball’s best relievers the year prior with the Baltimore Orioles. That year — 2021 — he posted a 2.70 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 63.1 innings with good peripherals across the board. Sulser’s strikeout and walk rates were still respectable in 2022, but he gave up one more homer in about half the number of innings. A 1.5-MPH dip in velocity could be the culprit. Should Sulser find a way to recover that lost velocity, he would be hard to leave off the Opening Day roster.

If Sulser doesn’t look great in spring — or if the team opts not to bring in another free agent — the D-backs have several other interesting bullpen options as well. Carlos Vargas, acquired from the Cleveland Guardians in exchange for minor-league righty Ross Carver, has been clocked over 100 mph with his heater and also throws a slider in the low 90s. Vargas has yet to pitch in the big leagues and his command might need further refinement, but he pitched well in Triple A last year at the age of 23.

The Pfaadt-esque wild card for the bullpen is Justin Martinez, who spent the majority of his 2022 season in High-A Hillsboro before earning promotions to Double-A Amarillo, Triple-A Reno and the Arizona Fall League at the end of the year. Martinez allowed just two runs over 7.2 innings in the fall league with 13 strikeouts. Hazen said earlier in the offseason that he expects the 21-year-old to come into spring training “looking to make an impression.”

Ultimately, whether this reliever corps is a significant upgrade from the one that finished dead last in fWAR a year ago is hard to say, but, at the very least, the D-backs appear to have accomplished their goal of adding more swing-and-miss stuff to the group. Castro sits 98 mph with his sinker and has a wipeout slider with a low-90s changeup. McGough sits mid-90s with a splitter and a slider. Vargas and the emerging Martinez can both hit triple digits.

It is also worth noting that the D-backs could look to move any of their young starting pitchers to the bullpen. Both Nelson and Jameson would be prime candidates for this if either is unable to crack the Opening Day rotation. Henry and Martin are other names to watch on that front.

Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly hits a double to deep right field against the Houston Astros during the fourth inning at Minute Maid Park. (Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports)

Catchers (2)

Carson Kelly, Gabriel Moreno

Other candidates: Jose Herrera

Trading Daulton Varsho for a backup catcher doesn’t sound good when said out loud, but the Diamondbacks do plan to ease Gabriel Moreno into the catching role and incumbent Carson Kelly could get the majority of the reps early on.

“This deal isn’t just about Moreno,” Hazen said after the trade. “This isn’t about him coming in here and having to take over that position. We feel like this is a good runway for him. We very much still believe in Carson and what he can do.”

The team’s hesitance to fully commit to Moreno is understandable. Beyond the unpredictability that comes with a player who still has fewer than 100 big league plate appearances, Moreno has never played more than 90 games in a season in his professional career. Expecting him to catch 100-plus games in his first full season in the majors is probably unrealistic.

Expect to see Kelly and Moreno split time at the position to start the year. If Moreno separates himself at some point during the season, it could make sense to trade Kelly, who is under club control through 2024. Shoulder either Moreno or Kelly get hurt, Jose Herrera is the next man up.

Former San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria hits an RBI double against the Philadelphia Phillies at Oracle Park. (John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports)

Infielders (6)

Christian Walker, Ketel Marte, Nick Ahmed, Josh Rojas, Evan Longoria, Geraldo Perdomo

Other candidates: Emmanuel Rivera, Diego Castillo, Blaze Alexander

The everyday infield appears to be set in stone: Christian Walker at first base, Ketel Marte at second base, Nick Ahmed at shortstop and a combination of Josh Rojas and Evan Longoria at third base. The D-backs would likely want another true shortstop on the roster in addition to Ahmed, a role Geraldo Perdomo could fill capably.

Out of the projected infielder group, Perdomo is the biggest wild card. On one hand, it is feasible — though probably unlikely — that he could win the everyday shortstop job over Ahmed. On the flip side, it is also feasible that the 23-year-old could miss out on the Opening Day roster entirely and start the year in Triple A.

Remember, the D-backs were cornered into making Perdomo the everyday shortstop last year when Ahmed went down with shoulder surgery. Now that Ahmed is back in the fold, the team might prefer to send Perdomo back down so that he can have everyday at-bats rather than play him in a part-time role in the big leagues.

If Perdomo doesn’t wind up on the Opening Day roster, utility man Diego Castillo, who was recently acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, could get a look. Castillo, 25, hit .206/.251/.382 as a rookie last year in 283 plate appearances and logged innings at shortstop, second base, right field, first base and third base. He did almost all of his damage against lefties, slashing .239/.281/.507.

With the addition of Longoria, Emmanuel Rivera’s path to the Opening Day roster is murky at best. Nonetheless, given Longoria’s injury history, it seems likely Rivera will be needed in the majors at some point. Shortstop prospect Blaze Alexander is a name to keep an eye on, too. Long known for his defense, Alexander made significant strides offensively last year, slashing .306/.388/.539 in Double-A Amarillo and .259/.412/.519 in Triple-A Reno.

Diamondbacks OF/1B Pavin Smith runs the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins at Chase Field. (Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

Outfielders (5)

Corbin Carroll, Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Pavin Smith

Other candidates: Kyle Lewis, Dominic Fletcher, Dominic Canzone

As far as the outfielders are concerned, all we can say for sure is that the newly acquired Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will make the team. The rest of the candidates are so young and unproven that any number of scenarios could manifest in spring training.

Nonetheless, both Corbin Carroll and Jake McCarthy played well down the stretch in the big leagues last year, and both seem likely to make the Opening Day roster. The D-backs have a particular incentive to start the year with Carroll on the roster. Per the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, Carroll would the net the team a future draft pick if he finished in the top two in NL Rookie of the Year voting and was also on the Opening Day roster.

Alek Thomas has more to prove than both Carroll and McCarthy after slashing just .176/.189/.208 from Aug. 7 to Sep. 25 last year and finishing the year in the minors as a result. If Thomas does make the roster, expect him to be the everyday center fielder.

How ever things shake out, the D-backs will almost certainly want a player with experience at first base to back up Christian Walker. If neither Rivera nor Castillo make the Opening Day roster, that job would presumably fall back on one of these outfielders. Pavin Smith fits the bill, having played 10 games at first base last year. Outfield prospect Dominic Canzone also played 29 games at first base in the minors in 2022, and could get a look for that role as well.

Somehow, we have yet to even mention Lewis, who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and was long considered one of the best prospects in baseball. At this point, however, it’s difficult to know what to expect. In 2022, he slashed .143/.226/.304 in 18 major league games and had good but unspectacular numbers in Triple A. Like many of his teammates, Lewis has a high ceiling — and a lot to prove — this spring.

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Top photo: Robert Edwards/USA TODAY Sports

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